Thursday, 5 November 2015

Poetry - is it just prose on short lines? Kathleen Jones thinks not

This is one of the trickiest questions on the Eng Lit syllabus - What is Poetry?  As a published poet I should know, but ......
Thomas Gray had an answer to the question, but it's all a bit abstract.
I’ve just done an interview on this for a former member of Authors Electric - Roz Morris, who hosts the ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ blog, runs a fiction course for the Guardian Masterclass series and produces a radio programme called ‘So You Want to be a Writer?’.  Her questions meant that I had to think quite hard about the craft of poetry which, we discovered in discussion, isn’t that much different from the craft of fiction.

Poetry is a bit more concerned with the rhythm and music of language than fiction usually is; the musicality of words and their percussion. This means that sometimes the syntax can get overlooked in the sheer exuberance of the lines. Poets are allowed to have a bit more fun with words than prose writers.

So long as the meaning comes through, it’s the texture of the words that matters. And meaning can be sparked by weaving them together in many different ways.  I love putting words beside each other that don’t necessarily belong together and seeing what they get up to.  The Australian poet Les Murray talks about the way language (particularly in poetry) can become feral and run off into the literary undergrowth to develop a new life of its own.  It’s a great image.

And poetry uses a lot of images to convey ideas and complex layers of meaning.  As they say in film ‘a picture tells a thousand words’.  It’s showing not telling.

Poetry uses narrative too, to construct stories.  Like its close relative, flash fiction, a poem doesn’t tell the whole story, only a tiny glimmer of it to ignite your imagination and invite you to complete the narrative. The title poem of my last collection was simply about the moment I (didn’t) say goodbye to my life partner at the airport, watching him leave through the boarding gate. But I hoped that it said enough about our relationship to tell a story and that it might find an echo in readers about the sadness of parting from someone you love. This is a quote from the middle of the poem.

He waves,
makes the clown’s face
that means ‘Cheer up,
this time I won’t be gone
for long’.  He turns,
then turns back, lifts one hand
to the terrorist-proof glass.  We place
palm to palm
remembered skin
on either side of the cold surface. . .

There seems to be something in poetry that’s fundamental to all of us.  It’s the thing we turn to when we are emotionally roused.  In grief, depression, love and celebration we scribble lines of our own, or read verses penned by others in the same situation. So there’s obviously something about highly charged human emotion that needs poetry to put it into words. Unfortunately (and anyone who has judged a poetry competition or edited a magazine will tell you), a lot of this poetry isn’t very good - for raw emotion to become poetry it needs to go through a kind of transformation, otherwise it is just that - an outpouring of raw emotion. Again the secret is in showing not telling - you don’t tell the reader what you’re feeling, you use images to show them so that they will feel it too.  In that wonderful first line ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ - W.H. Auden doesn’t say he wants to hold time still and be left in peace with his grief, he uses an active command to let us see how he feels.

Roz asked another tricky question - ‘Why do we write poetry?’.  I found that one very difficult. Emily Dickinson had an answer; ‘This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me’.  So I suppose poetry, like any other kind of writing is just the writer’s desire to have a conversation with the world of readers.  Which sounds a bit egotistical. So perhaps we are.

Why a poem?  Roz asked.  Why not just prose?  That one I couldn’t answer.  Ideas drift past and some of them are poems and some of them are prose.  So is poetry just prose on short lines?  Roz asked.   And of course it’s not.  If it is then it isn’t poetry.  The words are arranged in rhythmic phrases and little arcs like music on a stave.  Knowing where to put the line breaks is one of the more difficult aspects of the craft.  A word on the end of the line carries more weight than any of the others because the reader’s eye (or poet’s voice) rests on it for a fraction of a second longer.  That gives it importance and sometimes ambiguity.  If you write ‘The whale drifts’ and end the line there, the reader expects something about the whale that can be quashed the moment the next line begins - ‘down, to the ocean floor’.  All sorts of things can happen in the gap between the two words created by the line break.

But then Roz comes in with the killer question because we’ve reached the territorial border between poetic prose and prose poetry.  What’s the difference?  I suddenly discover that I’ve left my passport behind at home.  No matter.  It’s poetry if I say it is! And I have a poetic licence to prove it.

The Poetry Society

Guardian Poem of the Week

My collection, 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' is available from Templar Poetry, or through Amazon.

Kathleen Jones writes poetry and prose and publishes on both the wild and the civilized sides of the fence.  You can find her at  or on Facebook and incognito as @kathyferber on Twitter. 


julia jones said...

What an interesting and thoughtful post. I had Christopher Ricks as professor for a while when I was at Bristol and he was adamant that the single crucial ingredient IS the line endings -- which you write about so well, and use beautifully.

Wendy Jones said...

What a fascinating post. I have tried to write poetry a number of times and I think it is the hardest form of writing you have made things much more clear here. Thank you

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Kathleen. Thought-provoking, especially in that Roz's questions and your answers set one musing on what one's own answers might be. It really is a difficult area which those of us who don't write poetry (I've tried and still try occasionally, but never produce anything I'd show to others) can dodge by giving the equivalent of The Joker's line 'I don't know if it's art but I like it'. The idea of feral words let loose to creep or rampage through our psyches makes understanding so elusive and yet opens new perspectives.

Sandra Horn said...

Great, thought-provoking post! One of the things I love is the image created in a poem that means you never look at the thing in the same way again - as Norman Nicholson's dandelion clocks -'held like small balloons of light above the ground', and the hauntingness of the story not-quite-all-told - as Robert Frost's woods filling up with snow on a night when he can't stay and watch because he has 'promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep'. I'd better stop now..

Susan Price said...

Great post, Kathleen.
My favourite definition of poetry is Robert Graves' - 'poetry makes your hair stand on end when you read it.'
Doesn't help you write it, but it does help you recognise it when you stumble across it! - And I can vouch for the truth of it. The first time I ever read Ozymandias, for example, I felt my hair rise.

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes a very thought-provoking post, Kathleen. I love the Emily Dickenson quote! I suppose that though it can be hard to define the difference between poetry and prose, as poetry is so fundamental to most of us, we do just know it when we see it. Perhaps if good prose is like wine, poetry is more like a spirit or liqueur.

Nick Green said...

I think poetry is in the spaces between the words and lines.
The art of poetry is to create the right-shaped spaces.

Kathleen Jones said...

I've been out since very early morning on a long trek to Aberystwyth - a 5 hour train journey each way just to get 3 hours in Aber for a meeting. So I haven't been able to respond to your comments until now.
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses. Love the idea that the poetry is in the spaces - I think all good writing should leave space for the reader's imagination!